Michael Wells in Julia Adam’s “Once Upon A Time”. Photo by Bilha Sperling
Diablo Ballet turns 25 this season, and that’s something worth celebrating. And celebrate, they did, with a world premiere of a full-length ballet, Once Upon a Time, on March 22 and 23 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts. Choreographer Julia Adam has woven a host of fairytale characters—Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and her stepsisters, Alice in Wonderland and the White Rabbit, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and more—into a narrative ballet that’s smart and funny, with broad appeal. The score featured George Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” performed live (and impressively) by the Contra Costa Wind Symphony, director Brad Hogarth conducting.
Michael Wells and Jackie McConnell were adorable and engaging as the Boy and the Girl around whom the story centers. The setting is a schoolroom, with Raymond Tilton their stern schoolmaster. Tilton is tall, and the way he fills a stage with his presence, delivers high entrechat jumps with impeccable feet and soft landings, made him perfect for the role. The band of cheerfully unruly students included Rosselyn Ramirez and Amanda Farris as sisters, Maxwell Simoes and Felipe Leon as brothers, with Jillian Transon and Jacopo Jannelli completing the ensemble.
L to R: Maxwell Simoes, Michael Wells, Jackie McConnell and Raymond Tilton. Photo by Bilha Sperling
Adams, a critically acclaimed choreographer with over 70 works to her name, has concocted a delightful romp of a ballet that holds equal appeal for adults (whew!) as well as children. Buoyant lifts and jumps abounded. Gorgeous partnered leaps from Ramirez and Farris were ably supported by Simoes and Leon (who later charmed the audience with their Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum). Adam’s choreography is both lushly classical and playful, such as when one partnered lift ended with forklifted arms for the lifter, the female’s legs out in the splits, feet flexed. Tilton’s sauté arabesques commenced a “follow the teacher” line of dancers. Wells promenaded in an attitude that sent his back leg over a sitting girl’s head. In the back row, dozed Jillian Transon (a precursor to Sleepy of the Seven Dwarves fame?) There was always something fun to watch. Antics abounded until the moment the Boy received a thump on the forehead that knocked him out, and he woke, à la Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz, in a place populated by fairytale creatures.
The ballet, in two scenes, runs 45 minutes, which proved the perfect amount of time for Saturday afternoon’s family-friendly audience. The kids loved the production; their rapt silence was punctuated only by excited whispers each time a new fairytale character came out. For the adults, subtler entertainment: Raymond Tilton stole the show more than once in his various en travesti roles, including Cinderella’s stepmother, the evil queen from Snow White, the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, where he perfectly balanced hilarity and authority. Transom, new to the company via the San Francisco Ballet, was a grace-laden fairy godmother with lovely piqué arabesques. Ramirez and Farris, always strong, lyrical dancers, entertained as Cinderella’s two stepsisters. Jacopo Jannelli’s White Rabbit was so funny, with rabbit ears that quivered so realistically, they made me laugh like a kid.
L to R: Amanda Farris, Michael Wells, Rosselyn Ramirez, Raymond Tilton and Jillian Transon. Photo by Bilha Sperling
The troupe is small—only ten dancers—and for a ballet packed with multiple fairytale characters, it meant dozens of fast changes in and out of Mario Alonzo’s costumes. A decision to incorporate tie-in-the-back costumes was a good one, clever, effective and efficient. It also helped the kids (okay, and the adults) keep track of who was who, through all the fast changes. Costuming grew purposely convoluted later on, to great comic effect, as stepsisters Ramirez and Farris marched out with both dresses and dwarf beards. Scene one’s schoolroom motif returned when a huge load of papers was released from above like confetti, highlighted by Jack Carpenter’s lighting. And in the closing moments, as the Boy whirls the Girl around, her legs flying out, there’s a second paper drop, this time red bits, against a red glow (think: Red like the Riding Hood), and it was beautiful to watch as the curtain descended. A great ending to a great production.
The program also included a short film, “From the Foundation to the Pillars: A Diablo Ballet Retrospective,” by award-winning filmmaker, Walter Yamazaki, to help commemorate the 25th anniversary of this gem of a company, based in Contra Costa County.
“Looking back on 25 years warms my heart to know that Diablo Ballet’s mission has remained committed to enriching, inspiring, and educating children and adults through the art of dance,” artistic director Lauren Jonas shared in program notes. In this endeavor, the company has been wildly successful. Their PEEK Outreach Program, which began with one classroom in 1995, is now in six schools once per month for the entire school year, serving Bay Point, Hayward, Martinez, Oakland and a special-needs class in Walnut Creek. In addition, they are in their fourth year of working with at-risk teen girls incarcerated in Juvenile Hall. And since 2018, they’ve touched the lives of mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals at a rehabilitation center in Castro Valley.
How I feel about Diablo Ballet was epitomized by a post-performance moment just outside the auditorium, when the lovely, smiling Jackie McConnell, still costumed as Snow White, squatted down and beckoned two little girls in their own costumes to come over. Their awe and excitement and her genuine warmth were so touching to watch. I stood there, pretending like I was caught in the crush of patrons milling around, but the truth was, I just wanted to keep watching the magic that every member of this company passes on, onstage or off.
PS: exciting news from Diablo Ballet! In a press release, the following was just announced:
(March 26, 2019) WALNUT CREEK — As part of its 25th Anniversary, Diablo Ballet announced today that it will be opening its own ballet school at the end of summer at Performing Academy’s Diablo location in Pleasant Hill. Classes will be offered to students ages three through adult who enjoy dancing as well as those who wish to pursue a professional career in ballet.
The Diablo Ballet School will be the first in the East Bay to be run by a professional ballet company. Under the leadership of Lauren Jonas, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Diablo Ballet and School Principal and company dancer, Raymond Tilton, the School has a dual mission: to train classical ballet dancers who wish to pursue a professional career in ballet and to offer young children and adults in the Bay Area an introduction to classic ballet and the joy of dance by professional dancers.
The school will be located at the Performing Academy Diablo location in Pleasant Hill. This location will also be the new home of Diablo Ballet’s company rehearsals. Classes will range from Pre-Ballet to Adult Ballet classes, including Ballet I, Ballet II, Ballet III, Intermediate and Advanced Ballet. Students will have performance opportunities each year and Intermediate and Advanced Ballet students will be given the opportunity to perform with Diablo Ballet in one program during the Company’s regular season. Registration will begin in May on the company’s website. For information, please call (925) 943-1775 or visit www.diabloballet.org.
Diablo Ballet has done it again, and the company has never looked better. Wait. Didn’t I say that last year? But it’s true—last Thursday’s anniversary gala performance seemed to be presenting Diablo Ballet at its strongest, its most versatile. The roster currently features ten dancers; in past years it’s been nine, and the addition of one allowed for this very cool quintet of couples ending the night’s performance in the Swan Lake Suite. But that’s jumping ahead. Let me back up.
Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Performing Arts was the venue for the company’s 24th Anniversary Performance last week. An annual tradition, it’s like ballet’s version of a small-plate dining experience. No intermissions, instead a few minutes’ pause between every work. The dance pieces themselves are never overlong and leave one hungering for more, which soon follows. A welcome speech from artistic director Lauren Jonas, a charming slideshow chronicling the company’s community outreach PEEK program, accompanied by live music (Minor F Quartet from Oakland School for the Arts), and the audience was then treated to five works and one short film. Satisfying fare, indeed.
Jackie McConnell and Christian Squires in The Blue Boy. Photo by Bilha Sperling
Trey McIntyre’s “The Blue Boy,” is set to the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which is so elegant and beautiful, it adds a velvet veneer to the sharp, articulated passages in this classically-based work. The title refers to the famous 18th century Gainsborough portrait (you’ve seen it before, trust me). Christian Squires met every challenge McIntyre’s fast-moving choreography flung his way. Amanda Farris joined him, lyrical and with lovely soft landings. Jackie McConnell was a strong player, too, as the trio danced their way through partnered lifts, turns and playful quirks.
After Rosselyn Ramirez’ impassioned solo in Salvador Aiello’s Solas, a piece that spoke of loss, rage, sorrow, aided by Jack Carpenter’s moody lighting, Sonya Delwaide’s Trait d’union took to the stage. Set to Gabriel Fauré’s “Élégie,” the choreography is inventive and distinctive, with elegant lines. In the opener, Felipe Leon’s tilt, nearly falling into Alex McCleery, commenced the piece with great, creative energy. Arms were flung out, movements expansive. At one point, Leon leapt, caught midair by McCleery. Very impressive, as was the duo’s chemistry, their absorbed interaction. Here, too, Jackie McConnell was a strong third member to this pas de trois. Andres Vera’s cello and Robert Mollicone’s piano added a nuanced depth to the equation. Delwaide’s choreography finds that sweet spot I so love, of classical-meets-contemporary. (I blogged about her 2015 Serenade Pour Cords de Corps HERE.)
Alex McCleery, Jackie McConnell and Felipe Leon – Trait d’union. Photo by Bilha Sperling
Resident choreographer and Post:Ballet artistic director Robert Dekkers’ work always fascinates, and “Sixes and Seven” is no exception. It’s set to Philip Glass’s music—a choral piece with overlapping speech—and featured solo work by Christian Squires, who impresses me more each time I watch him dance. His total commitment to the role, the perfect timing of pauses, taps, spins, were fascinating to watch. The idiomatic term, “at sixes and sevens” can be translated as “in a state of disarray and confusion.” Was this Dekkers’ intent? (Certainly the music, with the quirky voice overlay, contributed.) You be the judge. Following is an excerpt from an earlier performance that features Squires and a second dancer, Jessica Collado. Susan Roemer’s costume (yes, they are wearing something) makes its own stunning statement (which would be: wow, what beautiful bodies – and ditto for Squires in his performance last week).
The night’s performance ended on a high note with selections from Swan Lake — the White Swan pas de deux; the Black Swan pas de deux and variations, staged by company régisseur, Joanna Berman. Larissa Kogut and Michael Wells impressively performed the White Swan pas de deux, no easy feat. It’s amazing, the breadth of talent and versatility this company has. Partnered pirouettes were solid, lifts were assured. Kogut provided all the appropriate Odette nuances, the demure expression, the arm flutters, the tiny head quirks, the foot beating sur le cou de pied during a partnered promenade. Wells was there for her through every step and lift.
Larissa Kogut and Michael Wells – White Swan Pas de Deux Photo by Bilha Sperling
Jordan Nicole Tilton (San Francisco Ballet fans will remember her as Jordan Hammond) is a welcome addition to the Diablo roster this season, and paired beautifully with another former San Francisco Ballet dancer, Raymond Tilton. The couple (offstage, too; they are married) danced the role with the strength and theatricality it required. This is a deceptively challenging pas de deux, ramped up a notch from its White Swan equivalent, with its more aggressive pirouettes, leaps, lifts, and sometimes the couple struggled. But as if to right an earlier mistimed passage, they finished the pas de deux strongly, nailing the last iconic pose of the adagio, which thrilled the audience.
Jordan Tilton and Raymond Tilton – Black Swan Pas de Deux. Photo by Bilha Sperling
Berman’s adapted staging turns the Black Swan pas de deux coda into an ensemble variation, which worked great and brought all ten company dancers onstage. Christian Squires knocked out a set of turns à la seconde, whipping around expertly, filling that craving anyone in the audience might have had for the thirty-two-fouetté series. Individual dancers and couples shot onstage, spun, leapt, and dashed off to Tchaikovsky’s propulsive score. The closing tableau, five sets of dance couples in matching black tutu and costumes, felt so charming, so right for this talented, versatile boutique company.
In an era characterized by struggling arts organizations, Diablo Ballet has continued to deliver for twenty-four years. Credit for this goes to artistic director Lauren Jonas, not just for her hard work and dedication, but her ability to motivate others: not just the dancers but the administrative and executive staff; the Board of Directors; the community, which includes people of all ages. (The company has a teen board – how smart and cool is that?) It’s a fine example of what works in the arts these days, and I hope other companies, small and large, take note.
*About that short film, a now-annual treat. This year’s world premiere is called Spiritus. Produced and directed by Walter Yamazaki, as in previous years, and likewise, a commissioned score by Justin Levitt. Last year’s was the award-winning Libera. Check out this stunning trailer.
There exists within all of us a shadowed place tucked deep within our psyche. Usually it stems from a childhood experience, something harsh that slips easily behind our barely formed defenses and brands our tender soul. San Francisco-based choreographer Marika Brussel poignantly chronicled one such experience here:
You are eight. Your father brings you to a strange apartment in a neighborhood far away from where you live. It’s dark and smells like pee. He holds your hand as the door opens and a man in a white, stained tee-shirt says something to your father that may or may not be in English. It’s a question and your father knows the right answer. The door opens to let him in.
“I’ll just be a minute,” your father says. And you believe him because he’s your father. And he’s tall and strong, and he takes care of you.
The door shuts behind him.
The hall makes funny sounds. Shuffling, as if there is an animal somewhere. You hear whispering, but can’t tell where it’s coming from. A door downstairs slams. A baby cries. You father is taking a long time. Your belly feels funny—hollow and tight. Steps sound behind you, so you fold yourself into a small ball near the wall. A man passes. He doesn’t notice you. You are invisible. The apartment door opens again, and as the man goes in, your father comes out and, as you breathe again, he holds his arms out to you.
As writers, we are taught to mine those dark places as a source of the richest material. Choreography, it’s clear, is cut from the same cloth. Particularly choreographers who have MFAs in creative writing, who’ve captured the poetry and the pathos of a child torn between loyalty and unease over her heroin-addicted father’s actions that will, ultimately, land him out on the streets, homeless. From these shadows comes art. Fitting, then, that Marika Brussel’s newest work is titled From Shadows, and is a contemporary ballet that explores homelessness and addiction through the eyes of a young girl looking for her father. The sixty-minute ballet will have its world premiere on Oct 12 and 13, at ODC Theater in in San Francisco.
One afternoon in late August, I join Marika and her dancers for rehearsal. Fog outside creates a more insular world but doesn’t mask the San Francisco cityscape through the windows. A cheery red shopping cart is parked on the gray marley floor, looking festive, out of context. Earlier, Marika borrowed it from a local choreographer friend and wheeled it over to the studio. In the area of 16th Street and Mission, rife with transients, it made her look like she herself was a transient. “Pedestrians seemed embarrassed to meet my eyes,” she told me. “Especially the more affluent white people.” In truth, the very people she hopes will support the arts and attend her ballet’s performances.
Today’s rehearsing dancers—Nina, Theresa, Emily H and Nick—are warming up, the women putting on pointe shoes before stowing their dance bags under the barre, affixed to a wall dominated by east-facing windows. “Let’s take it from where Nina comes in,” Marika tells them. The dancers nod, take their places. Without the music, Nina, dancing as the young girl, steps onstage into a commanding piqué arabesque, arms stretched in an imperious high fifth elongé that says back off to the bullying women nearby. She’s clutching a precious sweater, the only item she has of her father’s. But Theresa, a weaker, mentally ill transient, reaches over and unsteadily pulls it from her grasp. Marika, observing from the corner, calls out to Nina.
“You’re not sure if you want to touch her, or your sweater now, because, basically, she smells.” Accordingly, Nina backs off with a grimace from Theresa. Nick enters, upstage left, pushing a cart. Shoulders and head slumped, he is slow-moving, beaten down. He spies Theresa and they begin to interact. Her smell doesn’t bother him, likely because he’s used to it. She lunges out, as his hands reach out to catch her, support her. Through a partnered lift, they are momentarily entwined. Afterwards he places her tenderly in his shopping cart, tucks the jacket over her, around her.
Marika halts the flow of movement to step over and murmur with Theresa and Nick. The three discuss a better way of getting her into the shopping cart. Behind them, Nina stretches and understudy Emily H marks the steps on her own. “Try it over the shoulder,” Marika urges, and the two dancers implement the suggestion.
The movements all come alive when run through with the music. It’s marvelous stuff, at once contemporary and classic, melodic and jarring, reminiscent of the staccato second movement of Debussy’s Quartet in G. It’s “Dream House” by Mary Ellen Childs, Marika informs me when I ask, a composition reflecting Childs’ experience of having her house torn down and rebuilt. Musicians are the New York-based string quartet, ETHEL whose unique, classical-but-not-entirely sound Marika admires. The second vignette, “Shopping Cart,” brings in an utterly beautiful, plaintive violin lament, reminiscent of John Corigliano and The Red Violin. Later in the ballet will come a more jarring, percussive, drum-infused musical movement, which signals the arrival of the police, bent on dispersing the sleeping transients. But for now, bittersweet tenderness.
Throughout From Shadows, the choreography, much like the music, is steeped in classicism, technically assured movements that leave plenty of room for more contemporary touches: heads thrown back; arms flung out; staccato touches that hint at instability, mental illness, the dark side of addiction. It’s movement that is both beautiful and stark. It is the humanity behind the shadows, illuminated.
Marika Brusselgrew up in New York, the daughter of hippie artists. In ballet, she took quickly to the structure and discipline her household lacked and ballet mandated, showing great promise at an early age. She was selected to be a scholarship student at the Joffrey Ballet School. But pre-professional ballet training is fearsome, daunting, with countless sacrifices, physical and emotional. It’s a heavy burden for a pre-teen girl, made worse when her father was kicked out of the household for his heroin addiction. He sank deeper, and landed on the streets of New York when she was eleven. “I would walk around Chinatown and Greenwich Village looking for him,” she shared in an essay recently published by Street Sheet. (http://www.streetsheet.org) “Usually, I knew where he would be – he had found a home of sorts in a theater dressing room. But sometimes he would be nodding out at Bagel Buffet, near where I went to ballet classes. And sometimes he would be just in the doorway of my ballet studio, watching his daughter, like any father, except he hadn’t bathed, and his many layers of clothes told his story, right there for everyone to see.”
Marika remained doggedly committed to ballet until age 18, when, now aware of how much normal teen life she’d sacrificed through her adolescent years, she decided she wanted to experience other things in life. At twenty, she moved to San Francisco, curious to explore what it was like to be a young adult in a new city. “I wasn’t dancing at the time, but working on a novel,” she shared. “The loss of ballet had created a void in my life, which was filled somewhat by writing. But it wasn’t until I came back to ballet that I felt wholly myself again. In 1999 I moved from San Francisco to Santa Fe. I started dancing again there, professionally, with Ballet Theater of New Mexico. There, I started dipping into choreography, a little, although it wasn’t until 2014 that I started seriously choreographing.”
She and I discuss writing. It’s not often I get to connect with choreographers who also have MFAs in creative writing, and I relish the opportunity. When she asks about my current novel-in-progress, I tell her it’s set not in the professional ballet world, like my two previous novels, but in Africa, an ex-ballet dancer’s response to living there, its harshness, its mysticism. Her eyes light up. She asks whether I’m familiar with the Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, and his novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I tell her “yes” on the former and “no” on the latter (which I’ve since remedied—what a vivid, amazing, intensely African novel). It’s the story of a boy who inadvertently wanders over to a land populated entirely by ghosts, dozens upon dozens of communities of them, and the curious adventures he encounters during his time there. In one of those “small world!” moments, she shares that this African novel provided the spark for this ballet’s creation.
“Originally, I was interested in doing a ballet version of the novel,” she tells me, “but I couldn’t connect to it on a deeply personal level. Another choreographer asked me what resonated and I realized it was that the ghosts in the novel were neither dead nor alive. They were their own thing. The homeless seem to be like that too: not quite living, but also not dead.”
Back in rehearsal, the cart itself has become an interesting partner. During breaks, Theresa idly improvises with the cart, and it’s amazing, the grace and beauty from this pedestrian vehicle, as it supports her arabesques, her pirouettes. At one point, her two legs press together to give the illusion of one leg, hobbling along, made mobile only by the shopping cart. It’s a beautiful leg, a gorgeous line, en pointe, pretty as can be. But since most humans have two legs, the image becomes ugly by inference. Which somehow describes the experience taking place near the studio, in the heart of the Mission District. The homeless and the home-owners co-mingling. Some hurrying, some loitering; some reeking, others perfumed. Some conversing on their cell phones, others conversing with themselves. Such disparity. Yet every last one of those people were, at one time, whole, beautiful, healthy.
A second rehearsal three weeks later allows me to watch what is sure to be one of the ballet’s most riveting scenes, the “Invisible Police” movement, where the arriving police (portrayed by flashing red lights) violently disperse the homeless in their encampment. There is chaos, confusion, a perfect mesh with the boldly propulsive music. Today is the dancers’ first glimpse of the choreography, only recently created by Marika. “I’m a little nervous,” she tells me, with a chuckle. “I’ve never worked this with a large group of dancers before. And I’ve only marked it in my kitchen.”
Two more dancers, Cal and a second Emily, have joined the others today. The six of them mark the steps and then dance them. Again. Again. Again. Emily No. 1 (“Emily H”) radiates tireless energy as she runs, alerting the others, and embarks on a circle of impressive grand-jeté leap turns. Later, I watch as Nina and Cal, closest to me, nail the ensemble passage, flinging their bodies through the movements with razor precision and technique. It’s a lament of sorts, eyes and arms to the sky as violence swirls around them. “Why this? Why us?” they seem to be asking. “Are we not people, too?”
Marika’s father, homeless on New York’s streets, was one of the lucky ones. He came clean after two years, went through rehab, and remained clean, off the streets, through the last twenty years of his life. He did it, he told Marika, for her and her brother. Meeting Marika in San Francisco at one point, he called out an easy greeting to one of the homeless people clustering on the sidewalk. It turned out to be someone he’d met in rehab, who, regrettably, had gone back onto the streets. But his sense of familiarity with the transients, the way he really saw them, engaged with them, burned a permanent impression in Marika’s mind. Now she tries to do her own part, to help them, engage with them. See them.
I asked Marika what she would like audience members to draw from watching her ballet. “In a word,” she replied, “empathy. But in more words, I hope the ballet starts a dialogue about how we can change the situation in our culture of seeing homeless people as “other,” as a threat, and instead treat them with dignity and compassion.”
A grant from The Fleishhacker Foundation gave her the opportunity to expand this from an eleven-minute piece to a sixty-minute ballet. She is also the recipient of a 2017 Classical Girl Giving donation, awarded to companies, choreographers and dance organizations that strive to take ballet out in the world or use ballet to deliver important social messages.
Want a taste of From Shadows? Here is part of that original, eleven-minute piece:
From Shadows: a ballet about homelessness, will be presented on Thursday, October 12 and Friday, October 13, both at 8 pm. Run time is one hour. ODC Theater is located at 3153 17th Street near Shotwell in San Francisco, a short walk from the 16th St. BART station. Tickets are available at the door, $25 regular; $40 community partner ($20 from each ticket will be donated to the Coalition on Homelessness and Farming Hope) A percentage of the proceeds from the performances will go to local homeless organizations such as Project Homeless Connect and Farming Hope.
You can find out more about Marika by going to her website HERE, or take a ballet class from her at ODC, where she teaches adults on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6:15. She teaches Dance for Parkinson’s Disease in Berkeley on Mondays at 12 noon and in San Francisco on Thursdays.
PS: A “thank you!” to the dancers who allowed me to watch them rehearse on 8/29 and 9/19 respectively. They are: Nina Pearlman (pictured in rehearsal photo above with Marika), Emily Hansel (ditto), Nick Wagner, Theresa Knudson, Cal Thomas, Emily Kerr. Joining them for the performance will be Sharon Kung, Ruby Rosenquist, Alexandra Fitzgibbon, Allie Papazian and Jackie McConnell.
PPS: HERE is intriguing backstory of Mary Ellen Childs’ “Dream House” which opens with ETHEL performing the “Invisible Police” movement.
PPPS: Want to hear more from the string quartet, ETHEL? You can find it HERE.
PPPPS: It was getting a little crowded up above, so I couldn’t make room for this lovely pic of Theresa, but I say, hey, there’s always room for an extra notice, or pic, in the PS section. Am I right?
PPPPPS: See what I mean? Plenty of room, still. And, by the way, that’s Emily H, Cal, and Nina in the photo above. And since we’re squeezing in pics that I wanted to use but couldn’t, and by now, the readership is down to the people who like to read to the very end, much like those who watch movie credits to the very, very end (count me in here!), here is one last goodie. It’s of Marika, dancing, from years past. Maybe she’ll chime in here and give us an exact year. Cool pic. And no, it wasn’t planned in any way that her leotard bears an uncanny resemblance to Theresa’s above. Let’s just call it one of those serendipitous, end-of-the-blog-and-still-reading kind of moments.
PPPPPPS: Last one. I promise. Nick, the shopping cart, and his recent acquisition (Theresa)
PPPPPPPS: I lied. Nina, in silhouette. I mean, why WOULDN’T you want to see this very cool pic?
It was an evening of celebration and great dance as Diablo Ballet fêted its 23rd anniversary Thursday night at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. Adhering to Artistic Director Lauren Jonas’ mission to offer diverse and relevant works that inspire and engage, the company presented Sally Streets’ 1994 Three to Tango, excerpts from Petipa’s Raymonda, and Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination. The celebration program included a short film, plus a slideshow that commemorated the company’s PEEK outreach program, to live music performed by Minor F Jazz Quartet (comprised of students from the Oakland School for the Arts), all of which demonstrate the wonderful synergy between company and community. That Diablo Ballet thrives at twenty-three years is no small feat, and no coincidence.
The 23rd anniversary is referenced in a charming fashion through Three to Tango. In 1994, choreographer and Diablo Ballet artistic advisor, Sally Streets, set this work on Lauren Jonas in the company’s inaugural season. On Thursday night, pianist Andrea Liguori (who performed it in 1994 too), was joined by by cellist Andres Vera for a lively rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s alluring tango music. New company member Felipe Leon, replacing Jamar Goodman for the performance, dazzled with his clean, articulated movements and focus in this classical-based choreography with Argentine twists. Also new to the company is Oliver-Paul Adams who partnered the reliably excellent Rosselyn Ramirez in a pas de deux with proficiency if not particular ardor. Streets’ stylized blend gave us partnered pirouettes with a knee in parallel passé, some ending in a tango step. Ramirez stretched into a beautiful 180 degree partnered arabesque, and the men’s solo passages showcased their strong scissoring leaps.
Oliver-Paul Adams and Rosselyn Ramirez in Three To Tango, photo by Aris Bernales
Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda, like his earlier creation, The Sleeping Beauty, seems to embody Russian Imperial courtliness and grace. Set to Glazunov, it’s old school classicism at its finest. Thursday night’s performance gave us the Pas de Deux and coda, staged by Joanna Berman, company régisseur and former San Francisco Ballet principal. Raymond Tilton and Jackie McConnell, as the pas de deux couple, mostly succeeded, although a few initial rushed poses kept McConnell from looking fluid, her movements fully inhabited, stately and deliberate. Otherwise, the two were a pleasure to watch on the Lesher Center stage. Costumes designed by Sandra Woodall (and Renee Rothmann, Rebecca Crowell Berke), courtesy of Marin Ballet, looked great. A partnered arabesque released from a challenging balance for McConnell, reminiscent of Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” in The Sleeping Beauty, gave way to a confident, self-supported pose. Tilton, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer, is a perfect fit for classics like this. A solid final partnered pirouette ended the piece impressively for both dancers, and the coda that followed, which included three more couples, a flurry of tutus and brisk, well-rehearsed movement, was well executed.
Jackie McConnell in Raymonda, photo by Aris Bernales
Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination, a 2016 world premiere, is set to Camille Saint-Saêns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux, and conjures the rich, colorful inner world of a boy’s imagination. Christian Squires reprised his role as “Seven,” or “Our Protagonist” with the same engaging, theatrical flair as last year. Some roles seemed more refined this year, such as the buoyant gleefulness of Pippas (Jackie McConnell), Seven’s imaginary playmate, which hit all the right buttons for me, without ever feeling over-the-top. I particularly enjoyed McConnell’s red-sneakered, flex-footed leaps, their momentary suspension midair. Standouts this year included “Constellations” a dazzler with fiber optic costumes for the women that, along with Jack Carpenter’s dimmed, dappled onstage lighting, simulated a midsummer’s night. Partnered leaps and lifts (Amanda Farris, Larissa Kogut, Rosselyn Ramirez with Oliver-Paul Adams, Jamar Goodman and Raymond Tilton) looked nothing short of magical. “Colors of the Rainbow,” too, offered visual appeal and strong dancing by Adams, Tilton and Felipe Leon. McConnell and Squires charmed in “The Shadow,” and later were poignant in their depiction of a boy outgrowing his imaginary friend. Dekkers’ choreography flows throughout, engaging and creative. An all-cast pillow fight at the end, everyone now clad in onesie pajamas (all costumes designed by Christian Squires), feathers flying, was just plain fun.
Christian Squires and Amanda Farris in Carnival of the Imagination, photo by Bérenger Zyla
Twenty-three years as a successful dance company is indeed something to celebrate, and Artistic Director Lauren Jonas had every reason to be proud of this troupe and the full house and enthusiastic audience Thursday night brought. Really, it does the heart good in these times to see a vibrant local community supporting a vibrant dance company. While a trip to Walnut Creek might not prove possible for everyone (good news: they tour the region), Walter Yamazaki’s short films featuring Diablo Ballet give all a chance to see these talented dancers. Thursday night marked the world premiere of Libera; gorgeously produced, with an original score by Justin Levitt, narrated by Jamar Goodman. Here’s one from 2015, AETERNA XXI created by Yamazaki for their 21st Anniversary celebration, with a gorgeous score by Brian Crutchfield. Enjoy.
The dazzling world of the imagination; an exploration of the mythic through movement; Shakespearean drama lushly interpreted – these are the worlds revealed in “Celebrated Masters,” Diablo Ballet’s final program in their 22nd season. Saturday afternoon’s performance at Walnut Creek’s Del Valle Theatre reminds me how worth the effort it is to catch one of this troupe’s shows.
Gary Masters’ Mythic Place conjures a sense of sacred ritual and community. Set to a percussion score by Carlos Chavez, arranged and performed onstage by Greg Sudmeier, it delivers its message in movement that’s both primal and contemporary. Masters, founder and Co-Artistic Director of sjDANCEco, has long been associated with the Limón Dance Company, the foundation and its projects, which shows in the angular yet fluid choreography. There are turns with arms in square shapes, long, emotive reaches, leaps that lunge. The cast of five dancers connects in center, touching, before reeling outward in turns and jumps. Memorable was the way Tetyana Martyanova threw her whole body into a curve, and how Rosslyn Ramirez colored her movements with a powerful focus and gaze. Three newcomers to the company this season—Raymond Tilton, Jamar Goodman and Jackie McConnell completed the quintet. The men’s strong presence, in particular, seems to have raised the bar on this boutique company’s high standards. Saturday afternoon’s performance wasn’t flawless; unison movements sometimes fell short of synchronicity, but the live music and Renee Rothmann costumes—leotards in vivid colors of red, orange, yellow, green and blue—helped the dancers achieve a satisfying end result.
Hamlet and Ophelia; Dancers Christian Squires and Amanda Farris; Photo by Bérenger Zyla
Val Caniparoli’s dramatic Hamlet and Ophelia pas de deux provided a distinctly different flavor, right down to the dappled, dreamy lighting (Jack Carpenter after Dennis Hudson), and lush orchestral music by early 20th century composer Bohuslav Martinu. Sandra Woodall’s elegant costumes completed the theatrical statement. Christian Squires and Amanda Farris executed it beautifully, under the guidance of stager Joanna Berman, on whom the 1985 San Francisco Ballet premiere was set. Both dancers were well suited to their roles, and gorgeous to watch. This is a dramatic, and highly athletic pas de deux. Caniparoli, former principal and resident choreographer of the San Francisco Ballet and in great demand worldwide since, keeps his choreography thoroughly classical, yet fresh, propulsive. The piece ends as it began, Ophelia bourréeing on Hamlet’s long, long cape as he walks, which is, in and of itself, artful, imaginative, mesmerizing to watch. In the closing moments, the end of the cape becomes paler, more diaphanous fabric, like clouds, or the froth of churning water—the waters in which Ophelia will drown.
Here’s a taste for you:
The program closed with resident choreographer Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination, set to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Le Carnaval des Animaux.” Its opening moments feature Our Protagonist, a boy (Christian Squires), and the Imaginary Friend he has just dreamed up. Behind them, an open wooden treasure chest oozes fog and mystery, all against an orange lit backdrop. It promises exciting things ahead, and boy, it delivered. Raymond Tilton’s Dragon was powerful, impressive. Tilton filled the stage with his dancing, his fine technique, his presence. Formerly from the San Francisco Ballet, his skill shows it. Aiden DeYoung’s Panda grin felt a bit too slapstick, but boy, did the kids love his dance. Jackie McConnell’s portrayal of the Imaginary Friend grew more nuanced as it went on, manic glee replaced by other emotions, such as her sorrowful withdrawal when the Protagonist began to ignore her. Squires, throughout, entertained as he cavorted, pranced, engaged, resisted, conjured up, and shrank from these vivid creatures borne of his imagination. It was darling. Even his dull pajama onesie costume worked, the other, splendid costumes outshining him, of course, because when doesn’t imagination outshine reality? All the costumes—thirty in all—superbly designed by Squires himself, were full of color and imagination. Tetyana Martyanova stole the show not once but twice, as the Unicorn and later as the Butterfly. Gasps of delight could be heard from younger audience members, when Martyanova emerged as a gleaming, sparkling unicorn, in a sleek, opalescent unitard that made her look as though she’d been dipped in liquid pearl. And again, appearing as a butterfly, carried on and emerging from its chrysalis, to the unforgettable cello strains of “The Swan,” she dazzled, with her clean, beautiful classical lines.
Dancers from L to R: Christian Squires, Jamar Goodman & Tetyana Martyanova; Photo by: Bérenger Zyla
Rosselyn Ramirez charmed as the Tortoise, with wonderful attention to detail in moving precisely like a reptile, steps measured and exact. “Constellations” was gorgeous and inventive, the females sporting pale costumes topped with a web of tiny LED lights, glowing under Jack Carpenter’s lighting. Jamar Goodman, Mayo Sugano and the aforementioned DeYoung, Tilton, Martyanova and Ramirez, made this piece pure magic. Amanda Farris danced a compelling “Phoenix” and In “Raindrop/Drip,” Mayo Sugano and Jamar Goodman, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer, shone. The whole crew assembled for the finale, now clad in animal onesie pajamas, like kids at a sleepover, running in with pillows in hand. It was so gleeful, infectiously fun, it was impossible not to grin through it all. A pillow fight, feathers flying, pillows thrown in the air, timed to the millisecond as they landed on the ground in unison and eight heads followed. What a clever, fun ending to a clever, fun ballet.
I am doubly appreciative of companies like Diablo Ballet in the wake of Ballet San Jose’s recent demise after thirty years in the South Bay. It’s no surprise or stroke of luck that Diablo Ballet is going strong as they finish their 22nd year. Credit goes to Artistic Director Lauren Jonas, her dedication, intelligent programming, insight into what works and what won’t, and the way the company reaches out and supports the community that, in turn, supports them. Their outreach program, PEEK, should serve as instruction and inspiration to arts organizations and businesses everywhere. The success of a recent expansion of the PEEK program into the juvenile hall system is so impressive and uplifting, I’m going to save that story for a blog of its own. (Which, in 2017, you can find HERE.) In the meantime, hats’ off to Jonas, Diablo Ballet’s extraordinary dancers, and all who collaborate to keep this company thriving. Another performance, program and season done right!